My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea begins as any number of high school films and TV shows does: with two weirdos on a school bus, on their way to the first day of a new school year, talking about how things are going to be different. This year, people will like Dash because he has finally dealt with his persistent acne problem. This year, their classmates will stop making fun of Assaf because he’s lost some weight. But they get to school and everything is the same; they’re still the weird newspaper dorks that no one understands or wants to understand. And then there’s an earthquake and the entire school crumbles off a cliff into the ocean. The film is a disaster drama and a high school comedy at once, characterized by a host of well-known voices and the willingness to leave behind the straightforward cartoony animation to experiment with a more surreal understanding of what it means to come near death and then come away again.
When Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) get to school for their first day as sophomores, they quickly realize that they are going to have to do something different in order to be noticed. No one reads the newspaper that they write for, because there is nothing interesting to say in it. No one has any interest in talking to them, mostly because Dash is off-putting. When their editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) assigns Assaf to his own story for the paper, thus breaking up the boys’ writing team, Dash becomes aware of the relationship burgeoning between Assaf and Verti and, feeling jealous and forgotten, writes a smear piece on Assaf for the paper, saying that Assaf has erectile dysfunction. This gets him fired from the paper, and the incident is put on his permanent record. Determined to remove it from the record, Dash sneaks into the archives room, finds the records box and, in the process, discovers that the new auditorium the school has just built is not up to earthquake code. The added weight on the building means that the cliff on which the school rests will likely crumble in an earthquake, and the school will fall into the sea. Though Dash tries to tell his classmates and teachers about the danger they are all in, they fail to heed him, and after an earthquake, the school does indeed fall into the sea. Together, Dash, Assaf, Verti, the student council president Mary (Lena Dunham), and Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) must make their way to the senior floor and out to the roof before the school sinks completely.
Dash is not a great guy. That’s probably the first obvious takeaway from the film. Dash is not just a dork; he’s also jealous of his friends, contemptuous of his classmates, and has an unchecked sense of self-importance. Of course, Dash is also named after Dash Shaw, who wrote and directed the film. Shaw could have easily written himself as the hero of his own story, and he does, to a point, but in the most self-aware way possible; while Dash does anticipate the imminent disaster that would put all of his classmates and teachers in danger, once the disaster strikes, he does very little to rescue anyone and generally uses the information to crow “I told you so!” in every direction. It is easy, as an adult, to want to write yourself as the cool hero of your high school story, to retell your life the way you would have liked it to be, and Shaw certainly doesn’t veer away from that here. While Dash is generally terrible, he thinks that he is talented and intelligent and better deserving of good things in life than those around him, but this smug sense of superiority only makes him infinitely unlikable, both to those around him and as a character.
It works well to turn the high school nerd story on its head; so often, these stories end with the nerd coming to love himself, to understand that, despite the opinions of those around him, he is okay, which is all well and good, but what if he isn’t okay? What if the nerd is like Dash who is the problem? That people dislike him not because he’s a dork who has acne and is obsessed with writing for the newspaper but because he’s rude and selfish and only thinks about himself and his own feelings? Sometimes, growing up doesn’t mean learning to love yourself even when others don’t love you but taking a step back to think about why they might not, and from that perspective, Dash functions beautifully as a kind of pointless antihero. Schwartzman’s voice, so very particular, adds the perfect whiny petulance to the proceedings, so that he comes across even more insufferable than he otherwise might.
Beside Schwartzman’s perfect casting, the use of Watts as Assaf is almost disappointing. Watts, who is known as the musical frontman from Comedy Bang Bang and The Late Late Show with James Corden, is a comedian as much as he is a musician and has an array of vocal tricks at his disposal. While he voices a few characters in this film (as does Schwartzman), his work as Assaf is underwhelming. Assaf is Dash’s straight man, and only in one scene, when Assaf is finally able to voice his outrage and frustration at Dash’s behavior, do we ever hear him truly show emotion; even then, it is not a moment of comedy. That being said, as an unnamed senior jock, Watts does deliver possibly the funniest line in the film.
As it should, the art style really sets the tone for the film, and also often breaks its own format in order to change that tone. The characters are all drawn with minimalist cartoon faces reminiscent of Peanuts or Scooby Doo, with dots for eyes and parentheses around them to indicate changing expressions. Much of the animation speaks to a low budget, with characters who repeat the same motions over and over and sometimes jerky leg and arm movements that lack the fluidity of normal walking, running, or swimming. For the most part, this functions as a way to highlight the surreality of the story. Only from time to time does it make the action of the scenes difficult to follow.
But as the art sets the tone, it also allows space to change the tone. The film often veers into dreamy, watercolor scenes, softened by a slow piano. The world devolves into swirls of color as the characters literally swim through their school, trying to reach the next floor before they run out of air. Their lungs are visible in x-ray, slowly shriveling up as they hold their breaths, then expanding, glowing red, when they reach the surface and are able to again breathe. There’s a solitude to the scenes, because the characters are unable to speak, and instead of falling short, the animation steps up to the challenge of setting tone where dialogue might have otherwise. The color pallette changes as the characters do and as their situation does: in the dark, we see them climbing ladders in red silhouette, their features indistinguishable; in the light of a fire, their eyes are black holes, their skin yellow and orange. In moments of passion or determination, the faces are grotesquely detailed, with huge mouths and bulging eyes. The fact that so much of the film is played off in this low-budget, 70s kids’ cartoon aesthetic means that the places that depart from that are brought further into the focus, forcing us to give them the attention they deserve.
Because it is a bizarre high school disaster comedy, it would be easy to play the whole thing for laughs as is done with the senior jocks who are completely useless in their fight for survival, the popular mean girl who gets eaten by sharks, her eyes turning into x’s to signify her death, or the airhead who tells Mary that dying would be great for her political career because “All the great politicians are dead.” But the film never forgets that there are people dying literally all around these characters. There are solemn moments in which they look down an elevator shaft and find it filled with water, bodies floating on its surface; sometimes, they have to make choices that could easily kill them in order to save the others in their party; Mary has the sudden realization that all of her friends may be dead. Aside from Dash, who is really only interested in making sure that everyone knows he saw this coming, our heroes know that if they don’t succeed, there is every chance that they could actually die. These are teenagers having to grapple with the issue of mortality for the first time.
The beautiful thing about the film is that it is not a disaster film masquerading as a high school comedy; it is a coming-of-age story in which the characters come of age because of the disaster. These children become adults, solve their differences, consider their shortcomings because that’s the only way they’re able to survive. Each of the characters has their own quirks and talents, and they play off of the quirks and talents of each other, so that they are stronger as a group. All of them are flawed, and only in admitting those flaws are they able to overcome them. Only then are they literally able to climb into the light.